Amazon recently posted seven pilots, a mix of comedy and dramas. The idea is to get feedback from you, not just from executives, before deciding whether to move forward with any of these shows as regular series. With its recent Golden Globes wins for Transparent, Amazon is a real player in streaming television; it also has some problems, such as the fact that their last bunch of shows had quite a few stinkers, including Chris Carter's dismayingly wan The After.
Here are my quick takes on the new Amazon shows. Check them out and let me know what you think about them, too.
The Man in the High Castle
This is based on Philip K. Dick’s acclaimed sci-fi novel that imagines Germany and Japan occupying the United States during the 1940s, with the Nazis developing the nuclear bomb before us. It’s been adapted by Frank Spotnitz (The X Files) and directed by David Semel; they do a good job of creating this kind of alternate-history atmosphere. The acting is rather wooden, but that may just be because everyone has to talk so much, as they explain who's running what while we take in sights such as giant swastikas in Times Square. Of all the pilots, this is the one I'm most interested in seeing developed further, because Dick's novel has a lot of atmosphere and ideas to explore, and Spotnitz seems to have a strong grasp on how to dramatize those elements on TV.
Pause a moment and think of some jokes you could make about a non-gun-owner who is forced to help a gun company increase its business. Got a few? Congratulations, you're a TV writer: From its silly pun title to its execution, Cocked is one corny punchline after another. The (un)funny thing is, Cocked is presented as a drama, more or less — a family saga starring True Blood's Sam Trammell as a milquetoast coerced by his father (Brian Dennehy) to work with his wild-guy brother (My Name Is Earl's Jason Lee). Dreama Walker (Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23) adds some backbone to this show, but it's pretty weak stuff.
The New Yorker Presents
This is the most original of Amazon's productions: an attempt at a magazine-style show based on nothing less than The New Yorker. Like that print institution, the hour features cartoons, humorous 'casuals," poetry, (visual) essays, and profiles. Two stand-out segments are director Jonathan Demme's wonderfully revelatory documentary about Berkeley biologist Tyrone Hayes, and New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy's sharp interview with the transfixing performance artist Marina Abromovic. The New Yorker Presents is overseen by documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), and the television medium hasn't seen anything like this since PBS's The Great American Dream Machine (1971-72). More, please.
Point of Honor
A Civil War soap opera from Carlton Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel), Point of Honor begins in 1861 North Virginia just as the war is revving up. There are three sisters on a big plantation who talk and act like three 21st century actresses, and the hour takes its most absurd turn when one soldier convinces his father to free the plantation slaves, a scene that seems both highly unlikely and calls upon its black actors to react in a dreadfully mawkish manner. Next!
It's a half-hour, so I guess it's supposed to be a sitcom, but it's actually just a little sad. As the title suggests, it's set in a yoga studio, where a handsome slacker (Josh Casaubon) charms many women, including the studio's owner, played by the one stand-out performer, Paget Brewster. Kris Kristofferson pops up briefly as the slacker's dope-dealing dad, but otherwise it's a parade of lissome bodies in yoga positions. I have a feeling creator-writer Robin Schiff was going for a modern take on the Warren Beatty-Hal Ashby film Shampoo, with Casaubon as the lothario. But I'd rather see a show built around Brewster's character — she radiates more energy and brains.
I give Leslie Bibb credit for really throwing herself into the title role of an aging fashion model who's fresh out of rehab after a decade (!) and hoping to jump-start her career. Bibb's Salem Rogers is a strutting horror-show, tossing off crude insults to everyone around her, acting as though she's still the superstar diva she no longer is. Kudos, too, to Rachel Dratch (SNL), who plays Salem's former assistant-turned-successful-self-help-book author with nuance and natural humor. The script is from creator Lindsay Stoddart; this project was chosen from Amazon's open selection process, and you know it probably read funnier on the page than it does on the screen, where it too often comes off as mean — or perhaps that's because the pilot was directed by Mean Girls director Mark Waters. Still, I'd certainly watch again to see more of the quirky chemistry between Bibb and Dratch.
Here's another Amazon hour-long that's heavy on male bonding and joking around, but ultimately tries to heave itself into heavy-drama territory. Four old friends (Steve Zahn, Michael Imperioli, Ben Chaplin, and Romany Malco) journey to Belize to reunite with a fifth, played by Billy Zane. He lives in a grand villa, and for a while, the guys think they're in paradise — until the guns come out. Created by writer Chris Cole and based on a British series of the same name, and featuring The Shield's Shawn Ryan as one of its producers, Mad Dogs spends much of its hour showing us endless shots of beautiful landscape, squanders more of it having the guys talk around a big table as though they were performing a mediocre David Mamet play, and then pulls its big narrative twist at the end. The twist is intriguing enough to make me want to see a second episode, but Dogs is pretty shaggy.
All of Amazon's new pilots can be streamed for free on Amazon.com.